In the old days Intel fought off (and probably beat) the likes of AMD and VIA to make sure it remained king in the desktop and server markets. But today things are a little different. Sure we all use PCs and we all still need servers, but the only significantly growing market is smartphones and tablets. And here Intel doesn’t have such a good record. There are a few Intel powered smartphones around, but most smartphones and tablets are powered by ARM chips and Intel knows this only too well.

In a shock move Intel has been in talks with Creative Technology (remember the Sound Blaster sound card? no, never mind) to buy the UK branch of ZiiLABS, a wholly owned subsidiary of Creative. What is special about the purchase is that ZiiLABS designs ARM-based application processors using ZiiLABS’ unique StemCell media cores. They also make custom versions of Android which takes advantage of their hardware. In other words, Intel has bought an ARM and GPU design team!

The latest product that was released by ZiiLABS was the 100-core ZMS-40 StemCell Media processor. This little beast, which is optimized for Android, combines 96 of ZiiLABS’ StemCell media processing cores with four 1.5GHz ARM Cortex-A9 CPUs. Neat! And now it belongs to Intel. Well, almost.

Under the deal Intel will pay US$30 million to Creative for the transfer of certain engineering resources (meaning people) and assets (meaning buildings etc) from the UK branch of ZiiLABS to Intel. But here is the confusing part, ZiiLABS Inc. Ltd will continue to remain a wholly-owned subsidiary of Creative and Creative will continue to retain all ownership of the StemCell media processor technologies and patents. Also ZiiLABS will continue to develop devices incorporating the ZiiLABS ZMS-20 and the ZMS-40 media processors. It becomes a bit clearer when you remember that ZiiLABS has offices not only in the UK but in China, USA and Singapore. Intel are only getting the UK bit.

There is a second part to the deal where Intel will also pay US$20 million to Creative to license ZiiLABS’ high performance GPU technology. So what this means is that Intel are getting the rights to use ZiiLABS’ media processor technology and it is getting some (all?) of the staff from the UK branch of the company.

Intel has done this because, although it has made lots of progress in incorporating GPUs into its i3, i5 and i7 range of chips, the company uses PowerVR technology from Imagination for smartphones. By picking up ZiiLABS and entering into a licensing deal it means that Intel gets hold of a very powerful integrated graphics design and can move (slowly) away from its dependency on Imagination Technologies.

In the end, this is all very good news for Android. The more CPUs and GPUs that Android supports the better. The greater the competition, the greater the innovation. What do you think? Will a better GPU in an Intel Atom chip tempt you to buy an Intel powered smartphone?

Gary Sims
Gary has been a tech writer for over a decade. Prior to that, he had over 10 years of experience as a software engineer.